Answer Me a Question
In which Dodger must solve the most important riddle
The secondary cave was half the size of the main one and just as carefully crafted, with a smooth dirt floor, brick walls and a natural dirt roof. The place was probably intended to be employed as a bedroom, but Rex had warped its purpose just as he warped everything on which he laid his filthy little paws. Instead of hosting a comfortable bed, the room housed a metal monstrosity.
It bore the look of a coffin split in half, or better still, a sarcophagus, for it tapered and curved from foot to head in the style of the human form. The upper half hung from the ceiling, attached by a complicated series of ropes, pulleys and chains. The inside of this cap was layered with strategically placed spikes of a variety of sizes, with the largest being at the heart and the smallest at the eyes. The lower half of the thing sat at waist height on a wooden table, and it held an unconscious young girl and, as far as Dodger could tell, no spikes. Yet.
“Sarah,” Al said, stepping forward to check on her.
Dodger caught him by the shoulder. “I wouldn’t.” He nodded to the hanging lid and the danger lining the inside of it.
“Right. Probably a hidden tripwire or something.” Al worried his hands against one another. “You’ve got more experience with this sort of thing, son. What do we do?”
“Inspect it first. It’s my guess that we’re meant to get near it, but never assume anything when dealing with that mutt.”
It didn’t take long for Dodger to deem the contraption safe to approach, or deduce its rigging and purpose. At the foot of the thing was a control panel, which bore a series of tumblers, five in all, as well as what looked to be a clock of sorts. The clock face was decorated in the usual style, save that the numbers ran from one to sixty. A single hand rested at the top, pointing to sixty. The hanging lid was, of course, attached to this panel, as was the bottom half. The sarcophagus kept the young girl its prisoner by means of thick manacles binding her wrists and feet to the inside of the thing. A recognizable metal horn jutted out of the left side of the contraption, while a tempting red button sat between the clock and the tumblers, bearing a command.
“It should be safe,” Dodger said. “Make sure she’s still with us.”
Al leaped to the girl’s side and checked her for signs of life. He tenderly patted her face and shook her shoulders, but the young thing didn’t respond. “She’s alive, but she ain’t comin’ to.”
“He’s probably drugged her.”
“We have to get her out of here.”
“There must be a code to unlock those shackles.” Dodger pointed to the red button. “And I reckon this will tell us how to find it.”
“Are you sure?” Al asked. “Might be rigged to blow this hole to kingdom come.”
“I don’t think so. Rex is enjoying pulling my strings far too much fun to end it like this. Besides, he hasn’t gotten his paws on the train yet.”
“Well, go on, then. Push it and see what he says.”
Dodger pressed the red button, and just as expected, the pleasant strains of Vivaldi filled the small cave.
“Mr. Dodger, we meet again. I am sorry I can’t be there to greet you, but I have other obligations. I wish I could see the painful look on your face right now. How sorrowful you must be at ending the life of that poor child. How horrible you must feel, having to choose who lives and who dies. Knowing you must bear the responsibility of your decision for the rest of your life. But then again, you are familiar with that, aren’t you? What is one more life as long as you achieve your goal? Yes?”
As the mutt spoke, Boon joined them in the small cave, his ethereal eyes swollen with grief. He looked to Dodger, shook his head, then looked away again.
“But on to other things. You see before you a contraption of ingenious design. As I am sure you’ve surmised, the hanging lid is designed to descend upon the lower half, driving those lovely spikes deep into the tender flesh of the child within. Unless, of course, you can input the correct code word into the panel in time to rescue her.”
“We sure will,” Al whispered.
“As for the code word, here is your clue: If you break me, I’ll continue working. If you touch me, I may be snared. If you lose me, nothing else matters. What am I? You have sixty seconds, Mr. Dodger. Good luck.”
The voice faded beneath the swelling music before the recording came to an abrupt halt with a loud click. Another click sounded, followed by a steady ticking. Dodger glanced to the clock face, not surprised to see the hand counting down the given sixty seconds. With each tick of the clock, the suspended lid dropped closer and closer to the sleeping Sarah.
“Dodger,” Boon said, “that thing is dropping.”
“I can see that,” Dodger said.
“How do we stop it?” Al asked.
“We need to figure out the riddle. Do you know the answer?”
“I can’t think straight. I’m not sure.”
Dodger spun one of the five tumblers, not surprised to find it turned over to the letter A. Five letters would answer the riddle and unlock the sleeping child. Dodger ran the question over in his mind again. Broken, but it still works. Touch it to capture it. When you lose it, nothing else matters. There was only one thing Dodger could think of that fit all of those requirements. He spun each tumbler to the appropriate letter, spelling out the answer to the riddle.
“What are you doing?” Al asked.
“Heart,” Dodger said. “The answer is heart.” As soon as he clicked the last tumbler to a T, the shackles snapped open, but the lid continued to drop. “Quick, get her out of there.”
Al scooped Sarah from the base of the sarcophagus, pulling her out of harm’s way with seconds to spare. “That was pretty close. Thank the good Lord you figured it out in time.” He backed away from the contraption and lowered Sarah to the floor just as the lid closed, sealing the sarcophagus with its dangerous spikes inside.
“How is she?”
Al gave her a quick once-over and announced, “She’s sleepin’, but I think she’ll be okay.”
“More than we can say for the boy,” Boon said.
“Here’s your map,” Al said, pulling a folded bit of parchment from just inside the girl’s blouse. He held it up to Dodger.
Dodger took the map and slipped it into his jacket. “Shame we couldn’t save them both.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.” Al looked up and gave Dodger a sly grin.
“How can he be so callous?” Boon asked.
“Al?” Dodger asked. “What are you getting at?”
“Those cries we heard were little Rodger’s,” Al said. “But they weren’t comin’ from him.”
“What is he talking about?” Boon asked. “The excitement has warped his brain.”
Boon, Dodger said, did you actually see the child?
“No,” Boon said. “But I heard him as clear as you.”
“I will.” Boon slipped away to double check.
“I don’t get what you’re hinting at, sir,” Dodger said.
“Look, son,” Al said. “I lived with that youngun for almost six years. That’s long enough to know what every little cry means. When he’s hungry. When he’s thirsty. When he’s got a bellyache or when he’s seriously hurt. And the cries I heard a little while ago meant he was just plumb scared out of his wits. Now, they were fairly convincing at first, but then I noticed they were too steady, too fixed. Too fake.”
“The cries were recorded,” Dodger said aloud, finally understanding his mentor.
“Yup,” Al said.
“He is right,” Boon said as he returned. “The box is empty. The child isn’t there.”
“My guess is they have little Rodger safe,” Al said. “And he should stay safe, as long as we think he’s gone. He’s leverage now. That makes him worth something. And as long as he is worth something, he will stay alive.”
“That is devious,” Boon said.
“Let me take her, sir,” Dodger said. “You’re still recovering.”
Al gathered the young girl to himself. “I’ve got her. I’ve been taking care of these kids by myself up to now. I don’t need the help of a government man.”
“It’s a good thing I ain’t a government man.” Dodger lifted the girl, cradling her to his chest as they made their way out again.
“What’re you talkin’ about?”
“I quit. About six years ago.”
“Around the time you sent Patricia to me.”
“Yes, sir. She … she was a job I couldn’t finish.”
“I figured as much.”
Dodger wasn’t surprised that his mentor had worked it out, which of course meant all of the teasing about the boy child being his was just that—teasing and nothing more. Still, it felt good to get it all out in the open, felt better to say aloud what had been implied all of these lonely years.
When they returned to the main cave, Kitty and her minions had packed up and left.
“What kind of job are you talking about?” Boon asked.
“She was a problem I was supposed to dispose of,” Dodger said.
“You were asked to kill a pregnant woman?” Boon asked.
“I was supposed to kill her,” Dodger said.
“But when the time came,” Al said, “you couldn’t do it. Why not? From what I heard, you killed others for less reason.”
Dodger shook his head. “She wasn’t like the others, Al. She was with child. She was a woman of a certain persuasion, but that wasn’t reason to take her life. God knows how many women I’ve paid for a little affection. She didn’t deserve it.”
“I’m sure your superiors were quite disappointed in you.”
“You’re tellin’ me. I tried to get out of the game after that, but they wouldn’t let me. They sent me to the front lines, and I spent the last year of the war in command of a troop.”
Al chuckled. “That sounds exactly like the kind of thing you’d hate.”
“It was horrible. And when I tried to get out of that, they sent an agent after me. I was lucky to escape him alive. That was when I just walked away from being Rodger Dodger altogether.” Dodger stopped at the mouth of the cave. “Hang on, I need to catch my breath”
“You could say that.”
The pair shared a brief laugh.
“I’m proud of you, Rodger,” Al said. “You seem to have a fair job now.”
“Protecting the doc and the crew?” Dodger asked. “This work is strange and wonderful and frightening and just plain amazing at times. Fair don’t begin to describe it. One thing I will say, though: You were right, Al. All those years ago, you were right, and I was wrong. I’m sorry. I should’ve gotten out when you said.”
“It’s okay, son.” Al clasped Dodger’s shoulder. “Things have a way of rebounding. Look at us, talking now after all these years. Maybe you will come and see me more often now.”
“Maybe you could come with us?” Dodger held the girl closer to him, pleased that, for once, things might just work out for the better.
Al shrugged. “Stranger things have happened.”
Dodger! Boon shouted. Look out!
The sound of a single gunshot filled the cavern just as Dodger registered what was happening.
Al lurched forward, holding his chest, then fell to the ground at Dodger’s feet. Behind him, a grinning Kitty holstered her weapon and took off in a run. Before Dodger could lower the girl to the ground and grab his gun, Kitty was gone. Rather than giving chase, he turned his attention to his mentor, bleeding to death at his feet.
“Boon!” he cried. “The doc! Now!”
On it, Boon said, and was gone.
Dodger ran a hand between Al’s shoulders, hissing at the sticky warmth running free from the old man. Kitty had shot Al square in the back. It was a miracle that the bullet hadn’t gone all the way through to strike Dodger or Sarah.
“Hang on, Al,” Dodger said, holding his mentor to him while trying to keep a fist pressed to the gushing wound. “The doc will be here in a minute.”
“No … good,” Al gasped, a thin line of crimson rolling from his trembling lips.
“No! You hang on, you old goat. I need you.”
“You don’t … never did.”
“Shut up. Save your strength.”
“Answer … question.”
Dodger’s eyes stung with the prick of grief. “Not now, Al.”
“Please.” Al set to shivering between gasps.
“Sure. Go on. Ask.”
“Are ya … happy?”
That wasn’t the kind of riddle Dodger expected. “Sir?”
“With them … the train … are you happy?” Al coughed, splattering scarlet across Dodger’s face and neck.
Dodger clutched Al closer. “Al, please, don’t go. I don’t want to lose you again.”
“Are ya happy?”
“Yes. God, yes, Al. I’m happy.” Dodger lowered Al, looking him in the eye as he confessed, “For the first time in a long time, I am happy.”
“Found ya place?” Al whispered.
“Knew ya would.” Al glanced past Dodger’s shoulder, furrowing his brow as his damp eyes clouded with confusion. “Who’s ya friend?”
“I think he means me,” Boon said over Dodger’s shoulder. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
Dodger laughed, despite his own sorrow. “That’s Boon. He’s a long story.”
“Gonna … have … ta wait. Take care … of the kids … for me.”
“I will, sir. I will.”
With his last breath, Al said softly, “Love … ya … boy.”
Dodger felt the life leave his mentor in a single rasping shudder. He lowered Al to the cave floor again.
“Let me see him,” the doc said, rushing to Dodger’s side and panting for breath.
“It’s too late,” Dodger said. “He’s gone.”
The doc set down his medical bag and kneeled beside the pair, placing his hand on Dodger’s shoulder. “I’m very sorry.”
“So am I, Doc. So am I.”
While the doc tended to the unconscious girl, Dodger ran his hands over Al’s eyes, closing them as he whispered, “I loved you too, sir.”